hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Julian’s New Concept of Deterrence Effects?


Regular readers of this missive know that it is not my normal practice to post a blog a day. I am too busy for that.  Still, this morning I sent a memo to a very senior friend and colleague who had asked me to expand my thinking on a new concept of deterrence outlined in my blog of 13 February entitled MAD Again? Competing in the New Strategic Arms Race.  Therefore, given I am grappling with a range of ideas on the future of deterrence I thought I might try and provoke a wider debate in the strategy community by sharing the memo with you. 


My aim is to arrive at a new concept of deterrence by which new and emerging non-nuclear technologies could be 'bundled' and applied via new strategy and new thinking to generate deterrent effect across the conflict spectrum in conjunction with existing Alliance conventional and nuclear capabilities and postures.

THEREFORE, if deterrence is an effect the question I am posing is thus: could the Alliance generate the same or similar deterrent effect as nuclear escalation across the low to high yield, SRM to ICBM nuclear spectrum by matching new strategy with new non-nuclear technology, rather than return to a form of mutually assured nuclear destruction or MAD-ness?


1.   I am concerned that if we simply follow the Russians by matching nuclear system for system - SRMs, MBRMs, IRBMs, ICBMs – that will not re-set a ‘strategic balance’ and make the situation even more unstable by destroying treaty frameworks and with it arms control.
2.   By introducing new nuclear systems into Europe such a response could lead to similar if not more intense 'populism' to that prior to signing of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty when the Carter administration wanted to introduce enhanced radiation weapons (ERW) in the 1970s, and deployed Cruise and Pershing 2s in the 1980s, to match Soviet SS20s.
3.   Such a popular 'revolt' would cause significant political strains within the polis of already fragile political systems in many European countries, tense after many years of austerity etc., and would probably split NATO.
4.   By introducing Iskandrs, SS-29, RS 28, enhanced A2/AD, advanced nuclear-armed submarines etc. that is precisely the political calculation Moscow has made. Indeed, such deployments are part of Moscow’s strategy to offset its relative weakness by exploiting the 'strengths' of what the Putin regimes sees as a far more powerful, but divided adversary. Given that an adversarial relationship with much of the West is central to the Kremlin's domestic justification of power it is unlikely that such a strategy is going to change soon.

New Concept of Deterrence Effects?

My assertion on deterrence effects can be thus summarised: deterrence is an effect not a technology or even a capability, even if it is dependent on both. Indeed, technology is merely a means to a deterrence end. Since the 1950s deterrence has been dominated by nuclear experts because for decades what might be called 'strategic deterrence' has essentially been about balancing nuclear systems of mass destruction. Therefore, every nuclear 'hammer' has, by and large, been matched by a matching nuclear 'hammer'. The recent US Nuclear Posture Review was a continuation of that tradition.

However, our November 2017 report (GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report rightly identified new forms of warfare, and new technologies and new strategies IN future war, precisely to reduce the threat of such warfare - from hybrid to hyper via cyber war as we deemed it. In that context, si vis pacem para bellum (‘if you want peace prepare for war’) requires entirely new thinking (si vis pacem bellum cogita, or If you want peace think about war) about strategy, technology, capability and effects.  This is not least because such new thinking would play to ‘our’ strengths and thus enable the Alliance to set the deterrence agenda, not simply respond to agendas set elsewhere.


Given my assumptions my central hypothesis is thus:

1. The primary weakness of the Alliance deterrence posture is the lack of a heavy 'conventional' reserve force able to support front-line states in strength, quickly, and across a broad conflict spectrum in a crisis and during an emergency, if the threat comes from several directions at once.
2. Such threats would see an attack from Russia to the east, chaos and terrorism to the south of the Alliance, and attacks within Alliance states, allied to sophisticated and co-ordinated efforts to generate popular discord via disinformation and attacks on critical infrstructures, and thus undermine an effective and coherent response.  
3. Such a threat would be dangerously exacerbated if the US was also engaged simultaneously in a major crisis elsewhere, such as in Asia-Pacific.
4. Even if the Americans, Canadians, and possibly the British, could despatch a heavy reserve force simultaneously to the East, North and South of NATO's European theatre the infrastructures to transfer such forces across the Atlantic/Channel quickly, receive them effectively and efficiently, and then transport them rapidly into the Area of Operations (AOO) simply do not exist.
5. Much of the ‘Main Force’ assigned to the NATO Command Structure either exists only on paper, or is incapable of acting (see “German Army Problems ‘dramatically bad’”
6. To offset what I call the 'deterrence gap or deficit' the reflex tends to be to resort to nuclear weapons. Indeed, first and early use of such weapons was the central assumption of Alliance deterrence during the Cold War on NATO's Central Front when our forces were a) not as extended as far to the east as they are now; and b) the south was relatively more stable, thus enabling a vaguely credible conventional Main Effort.
7. Resorting early to nuclear escalation in Alliance defence strategy would be a political trap for all the reasons I explain above. The political consequences for strategy could thus be the weakening of political solidarity upon which credible deterrence and defence stands at the Schwerpunkt or decisive climax of a pre-war crisis, dangerously weakening, not strengthening, Alliance deterrence.

Desired Deterrence Outcomes?

1.   My desired deterrence outcome is a natural follow on to our NATO Adaptation Report. The strategic 'bandwidth' that could be applied to generating credible deterrence seems to be expanding exponentially due to emerging technologies.
2.   These emerging technologies act across the AI, quantum computing, big data, etc, etc spectrum, and could be coupled with new forms of 'conventional' capabilities involving enhanced range, precision, and destructive weapons.
3.   Such technologies should be allied to new thinking on the possible application of critically disruptive strategies and technologies able to exploit systematically the seams that exist with an adversary - societal, political, economic, as well as critical infrastructure destruction and disruption.
4.   The legitimate counter-argument would be to question the applicability of such technologies and the time it would take to develop and deploy them, not least because NATO Europe is so bad at fielding times for new systems.

More thinking and work needs to be done on a new concept of deterrence effects, which I will do. However, to my mind what is urgently needed is that such new thinking takes place, and not only by me.

Julian Lindley-French


  1. I think your assumptions is basic sound with a reference to Sun_Tzu:
    Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy.

    That said, there is a difference in perception in the Kremlin world (under attack by the West) and in Western capitals (peace and love & win-win) to be a little ironic. The need for a strategy has to be accepted (there is an opponent or several opponents), and from there to make a strategy to use money and resources in a wise way is a road yet not taken.
    Until the political side is on-board, it's a security community exercise talking in their echo cambers with very little effect.

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